The mere mention of Ben Stokes’s name makes Pat Cummins shudder. “Oh do we have to talk about him?” he says with a laugh.
The world’s No 1 fast bowler can afford a grin now, with the Ashes in Australia’s possession and Cummins named as one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Year for his menacing performances in the series in England last summer.
In the aftermath of the 2019 Headingley Test, however – when he was the bowler off whom Stokes bludgeoned the winning runs in his miraculous 135 not out to haul England to the most extraordinary victory – he and the Australians were bereft. “We felt like we’d literally had the Ashes stolen out of our hands,” he says.
Cummins is isolating from Covid-19 on his rural property south of Sydney, with his fiancée Becky. On the other side of the world this weekend, England cricket fans have been reliving the drama of Stokes’s innings courtesy of both the BBC and Sky Sports replaying the match as live.
The memories are still painful for Cummins – although not as agonising as on the night of the defeat when he received a text from the head coach, Justin Langer, saying he wanted them all to sit down the next morning and watch their implosion on replay.
“The feeling around the group was: ‘What’s he doing? He’s got this one way off,’” Cummins recalled. “I remember getting the message and I thought: ‘C’mon, we’ve all gone through this, just give us a day off.’ Everyone had played it over in their head a hundred times that night. I just remember thinking it’s better if we sleep on it, have a good day off, forget about it, and come together once we’ve all mellowed down a little bit.”
The team, in T-shirts and baseball caps, gathered around a dark table in the boardroom of the Leeds Marriott hotel. Cummins sat towards the back, just in front of Nathan Lyon. “It was literally 15 hours after the last ball, so emotions were still high. That was the context of the meeting, everyone was still hurting.”
As the 10th-wicket partnership between Stokes and Jack Leach was played out, Langer interjected to question tactics. He openly chided the captain, Tim Paine, for allowing Stokes to keep the strike when they needed to be attacking Leach. Paine said later that he found it hard to confront making mistakes. If Cummins, as vice-captain, felt any awkwardness on Paine’s behalf, he doesn’t admit it.
“That’s the culture we try to breed into the team,” he says. “If you feel something, say it. And that’s the good thing about Painey and JL. They don’t mind going toe to toe if they have to.”
Cummins had to watch as a review was burnt off his bowling, before Lyon should have had Stokes lbw with two to win – but there was no review left. And what of Lyon’s fumbled run-out chance off Cummins’s throw? “I can say 100% he was sitting at the back with head down,” says Cummins. “He just could not watch it. Like a lot of us.
“We all left that meeting thinking: ‘You know what, if we did the same thing a hundred times over, we’d win 99 times out of 100.’ He [Stokes] just had a day out, played incredibly well. We had a couple of chances we missed but, do you know what, in the end it was just that last bit where someone had a day out and it came off.”
The match is captured in a documentary that follows the team throughout the Ashes. Even though Australia went on to retain the urn at Old Trafford, the footage makes for grim viewing as far as Cummins is concerned.
“I have to say, I find that episode harder to watch than anything else. I really struggled to watch it, because that was the Ashes. It was right there in our grasp, and it got taken away from us. But it was a good call by JL [to watch the match back at the time]. You see it objectively. It was actually the best thing we did.”
That might be the feeling now, but it is unlikely Cummins would have settled in to watch another replay had he been visiting the UK this weekend.